Ribbon Roads of Texas

We aren’t far from the Oklahoma border upon waking up in Liberal, Kansas and our hotel is even closer to the Dorothy House, a tacky tourist attraction with creepy plywood cutouts that wouldn’t be open for another six hours anyway. We are in the state of tornadoes less than an hour and pass a large giraffe yard decoration, an abandoned small brick building industrial lot, and cows admiring the wind farm that covers 180° of the horizon.

We pass over the Canadian River and besides noticing how wide the bridge’s shoulders are I get to imagine what it was like: driving on the old road, riding on the old tracks, or walking over the Historic Wagon Bridge; while watching a train move along in the distance. It’s rare that I get to introduce Dad to new things. Today, that will be the wonderful Czech creation known in Texas as the kolache and made famous to me by the Village Bakery in West, TX.

What sets these stuffed pastries apart from pierogis, empanadas, and samosas is their sweet non-crimped dough surrounding a sausage and usually cheese, peppers, and sauerkraut too. This bakery has one flavor on display, breakfast, and Dad thinks it’s delicious. This puts him in a detouring mood, which could be another middle name for both of us, and we’ll make our way to Arrington Ranch to see the house from Castaway, after driving through Canadian and down another memory lane.

Dad’s driving while telling me about the guy who found this place so it could be used in Hollywood, not that they’ve met, but I get the same feeling I had when I learned that I could be a Zamboni ice-resurfacer driver. There’s jobs out there that I may be qualified for but don’t know where to apply. Such is life and I’ll continue being satisfied watching a grasshopper hold onto the back window while the car is doing 30+ mph down a dirt road in the Texas panhandle.

Not only is this place recognizable from the movie, but the Department of Agriculture has designated it a Family Land Heritage Property because the same family had managed to keep it going for a hundred years. This is impressive but also saddening to watch the demise of part of our culture as we move towards another, as I’m sure people felt the same about the shift from the four-legged Mustang to the four-cylinder Ford.

All this thinking also has me wondering about where the strong idea of “ya’ll” comes from and how it spreads out and meets with another idea emanating from another strong idea in another cultural center. Where does the Texas influence come from (besides what we’ve been told about the Alamo) and when does it become New Mexico, Oklahoma, Louisiana — the foods, smells, animals, habits, and languages associated with a certain region or group of people?

The gravel and oil road provides entertainment and noise as we drive through Wheeler and south to Shamrock; a town with weird announcements and music playing on an empty street, no businesses open and an out-of-state car the only one parked in sight. We’ll turn right on the W 256 towards the outhouses of Memphis and save the 754 miles to Brownsville for another adventure. We pass a “sleeping” hog in the road, along with the license plate that was abandoned at the scene, foreshadowing the road ahead.

What awaited us was also covered in shit (of all kinds), rust, nests, newspapers, broken wood, and one unopened jar of creamy Peter Pan peanut butter. One of the houses had a Stephen King aura and though I wanted to be hesitant I was also curious to see what horrors lie upstairs and overcame my fear that I would fall through the stairs, that were previously carpeted but more recently buried under a heap of turds that had cascaded their way to the floor, and impale myself with a sharp piece of disgust.

The novel continues with, “as she approached the room at the top of the stairs, the birds escaped the closet in a flurry and as they left out the window, she looked down at the one they left behind, dead.” There’s a record player in the bathroom and I can hear the lyrics playing “Do you hear what I hear.. the sound of murder, waiting to surprise you..” though we were both more nervous about me falling through the floor when it’s 95° outside with an awkward moist heat and smell of disaster and desertion inside.

I see a page that has been torn out from a yearbook, currently folded in half on the floor, which could be dirt or carpet and ground up remains from the last person poking their nose in here and guesstimate that the parents took their kids’ place on picture day between 1978-1982. Back in the fresh air I realize that we’ve already traveled 3,848 miles as we approach Tulia, “city with a future” of an empty main street, in the afternoon and we’re still getting along, maturation is a good thing.

There’s a song about a corner in Winslow, Arizona and the Texas corner we’re in has yet to be written about because tater tots and bad coffees don’t sell as well as the possibility of love, so we left that tune and moved onto Nazareth, the small populated city with fancy houses and failing businesses surrounded by cow death camps and empty boxcars. In Bovina, there’s a dancing flower spraying water gently to entertain a toddler while her parents watch from the porch.

We pass a large store with most of the windows boarded up and the lights on. As soon as we cross into New Mexico we are gifted with an abandoned motel to explore — full of hangers, lace, and anal beads. You can guess which one Dad took back to gift Caroline, all of them dusty. We drive through Melrose Village and Yeso stopping at every ruin that man has left as shelter for busy bees, ravenous birds, open boxes, half-filled bottles, broken furniture, and busted appliances.

The exact exchange of words will be lost but the overall feeling will last and the impact will continue to evolve and be spewed forth in future interactions. We listen to ‘Solange – Losing You’ and ‘Menzi – I See U’ before continuing our conversation about the importance of having a mentor and sharing our successes with others to help them grow. We reach Vaughn, “the crossroads of New Mexico” from the 1880’s, as a stopover on the Stinson cattle trail, later the intersection of two major railroads, and now where highways 54 and 60 meet.

Though two-thirds of the population have since left and closed a majority of their businesses, it’s on this stretch of highway that I get the opportunity to touch a fiberglass wind turbine blade, each one being 240 feet long that bounces with each bump and touch of wind. The diverse hauling group is picnicking in the shade of one and we meet Ezekiel, very kind and spreading a good vibe with his open and positive personality, who is from Missouri and now lives in Arizona.

He’s traveling with a video maker, who knows more about my camera than I do; a tattooed woman from California who preferred to smoke her cigarette in the truck; and an older guy that let Dad know the blades are replaced every 15 years. What they didn’t tell us is that cities like Casper get $675,000 to house the blades that are difficult to recycle or repurpose, yet, in their landfill. Forty miles west of Socorro, where we’ll have dinner, we stand in absolute silence and awe as we watch the sunset.

Dad orders for me at El Camino Restaurant and Lounge, a necessary stop each time Dad stays here. He’s sad to learn that the staff has been here since 6am and will be closing before 10pm as they’ve worked one long shift due to staff shortages that used to keep this place open 24 hours. They have the next two days off which means a next-best breakfast recommendation for us. This will be my first spend of the trip, tipping our waitress Ashley in gratitude of her humor and endurance.

We check-in to our domicile for the night. We call our spouses to tell them about all the remnants we photoed, all the miles covered, the desserts not eaten, the massive amount of dried mangoes consumed, the animal encounters, and how we felt our conversations of the day went. “I talked at her so much and she just continued to love me instead of getting that teenage sneer on her face and crossing her arms. It was the weirdest thing and it greatly encouraged me to continue.”

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South, Through Nebraska

Missouri River

I slept so good with a storm raging outside that had cleared up before we went to downtown Pierre looking for historic buildings worth sharing their facades and possibly their history. The only thing we found was the Harvey Wollman statue, the 26th governor of SD that was in office only five months. He was born in Frankfort, SD while Caroline was born in Frankfurt, Germany. This statue is just one of the 28 celebrating all the former governors of the state.

fields an hour apart

sorghum or broom corn

We admired the Missouri River before stopping at Scooter’s for matching lattes, mine minus the extra shot, only to find out later that we’d been given steaming cups of milk in place of needed caffeine (whether now or later); hence why there are mixed emotions when trying a new place. We enjoy the cows placed in parts of the rolling hills and stop on the plateau of the view to watch the sun fight to shine through the clouds.

the bottom of South Dakota

We stop in Murdo and talk with the man giving detour directions around the construction area that got rained out last night during the lit-up storm. The lightning in this region is definitely the night sky’s best light painting influence. We learn that this man is from Louisiana and served in Alaska for 17 years before managing a co-op in White River, just 29 miles from here, for 25 years before retiring three years ago.

Giant goldenrod, Solidago gigantea, state flower of Nebraska

He suggests we read Engineer in High Heels by Edna Arend Witcher, about a mother of four who helped build Alaska’s Arctic Road in the 1970s. Then he tells Dad and I our best option for continuing on the 83 S is to backtrack east on the 90 for 20 miles, turn right on the 53, and make another right onto the 44. So many right turns has me wanting to go towards the construction we just avoided – good thing Dad’s driving.

power lines

This detour costs us an hour as we drive 35mph over a gravel road with potholes and deeper ribbed portions that keep us from going the posted 55mph after the paved portion which was only a third of the route. We watch two pheasants cross the road, one running while the other flies, one flapping its wings while the other glides. The sun is out with light blue skies as we cross into Nebraska before noon.

plants of Nebraska

The city of Valentine, properly located in Cherry County, has red street signs, hearts everywhere, and bike rentals (surprising for a population under 3,000) via the Heartland Bike Share next to the Cowboy Trail – a rail trail running east for 321 miles from Norfolk, NE to Chadron, NE, over half of which is developed. Following us is the older, more narrow, version of the 83 that can be seen in parts.

old Hwy 83

Where the 83 S and the 2 W meet, near Thedford, Dad gets the train engineer to honk as he raises his camera to get the oncoming shot. The a/c gets tired again and stops blowing cold air so we turn it off as we drive through N. Platte at 30mph and marinate in 92°F with the windows down. We make it to Selden, Kansas where the conversation and the landscape start to flatten out, a welcome change for both.

Dad taking in the view, digitally

Give anything enough time and you’ll notice a difference. It doesn’t take long for us to see the thick clouds brewing south of Oakley, with threats of tennis ball-size hail, moving east as the storm warning updates. Dad was going to take us northwest but we’ll sit under a semi diesel station pump while around us is barraged with heavy rain and pea-sized ice pellets. A second storm warning emerges as a truck driver nudges us out of his way.

food in various forms

Dad reverses out of the spot as the downpour recedes temporarily. As the rain gets heavier, the day gets longer, and I start to get hungry, tired, and anxious that these feelings will cause me to act out like they would have when I was younger. My calmness is rewarded with beautiful and frequent lightning that get us to dinner at Cattleman’s Cafe II at 9pm when both spouses call. For being rated the best in town, the restaurant was a disappointment.

signs in Kansas

the sky, falling and forming

Reinvigorated with carbs and broccoli we went for sugar and dairy at Freddy’s. This gives us the energy needed to check-in to our hotel, call our spouses back, talk about the large topless tattooed man standing outside our door that’s near the window at the end of the hall, and for me to brush my teeth to be in bed by 1130pm. At some point in the day we stopped for drinks, forgot water, and had to swat ten flies out of the car.

stormy sunset

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Grasshoppers in Dakota

The car trunk is open again before we go downstairs to put our stuff in it. The trunk was open last night after dinner too but luckily nothing was missing. We go back inside the hotel to check the breakfast offerings and Dad will spend the half hour talking with Julie at the front desk while I eat, look at the Olympics on TV, and call Caleb. Julie happens to live in Arizona, close to Dad, but is from Scobey and returns for two months for the weather, her friends, and to help at the hotel.

We stop in Redstone to admire the abandoned homes, except for the new helmets and keys in the fridge for the Harley. A guy drives by and tells us that for 99 years this town was a big deal for farming; it’s mostly empty now. Next stop, Plentywood for gas and Dad’s first time using a truck windshield squeegee, about three times the length of the car ones, to get the bug guts out of view as they continue to accumulate on the front of the car.

We are in North Dakota for 40 minutes before we realize we’re in another time zone, CST, now two hours ahead of our spouses, and that we’ve lost an hour of our day. I notice hay bales wrapped in an American flag design rather than the popular plain green plastic but both are doing their job to preserve the energy stored inside with a minimum of six layers to keep oxygen out and deliver better quality food to the livestock.

We’re still on the 5 E (also called the 52 and 40) and approaching what I thought were little roadside ponds. It turns out it’s the Upper Des Lacs Lake, which looks like a river on the map, that is 28 miles long and a half-mile wide. A stop in Mohall is almost as informative about the cashier’s car situation as the short visit in Fortuna, now a third of the state behind us, was about the former US Air Force station that closed in 1979.

We arrive at the Renville Corner convenience store intersection where the 5 E meets the 83 S and debate taking the one-hour minimum detour to start at mile 0 (if there’s even a marker) and decide that it will give us a reason to return. This decision in no way limits the amount of grasshoppers that we will encounter on the windshield, bumper, tires, and road – so many little crunching noises under the wheels and our feet.

In Minot, I notice the indoor tennis courts, the yellow painted intersection light poles, and the plastic drifting across the road that seems to have been used as filler for the road cracks. Dad agrees we need to stop at the Bearscat Bakehouse, known for their chocolate cake turd donut that they claim is not bear shit but an old cowboy term for donuts. We stop at the other end of town for something more substantial to eat before getting back on the 83.

It’s nice to travel with someone as curious as you, waiting to get phone signal sometimes, to look up what you’re seeing and learn more about it – Lake Audubon has a maximum depth of 60 feet; the smoke in the sky is from fires in Oregon, Montana, and Canada; and the cows we’re passing are Red Devon. Linton advertises having ’90 Businesses to serve you,’ which means according to their 2010 census, that’s a business for every 12 residents.

We enter South Dakota after 6pm. The windshield wipers are garbage, which isn’t so bad when it’s not raining grasshopper guts too and they’re getting smeared all over the glass. We pass through Mound City, population 71, and Dad calls Caroline. It’s nice to hear a supportive voice looking at the map as I am so she can see where we are, which is near Pierre, the second-least populous state capital where we will be having dinner.

Better to drive while the sun is up, enjoy the view, and build an appetite so we can eat when nature’s light is out. We get to Cattleman’s Club Steakhouse after 830pm and are both impressed with the taste of their garden squash. After dinner, we’re treated to fireworks, a passing train, and meeting Wanbli (means eagle in Lakota) who checks us in to our room. Words are written and read, photos edited and uploaded, lights off and eyes closed by 11pm.

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Dumb Ideas Are Our Territory

We both woke earlier than usual this morning as Dad had set his morning wake up call from Caroline the night before but we were up with our eyes adjusting to the lights before that. I’ll load half the stuff in the car and leave the hotel room door open so I could get back in but return to a locked front door that doesn’t open till 7am. Luckily there was a woman with a key who let me in so I wasn’t stuck waiting for a half hour.

Sat down to breakfast and were served water in Prindy’s Place personalized plastic cups and coffee in diner mugs. I can appreciate the small town conversational vibe but this morning is loud with excited bikers on their way to the biggest annual event for them with concerts and competitions. It also seems they have an hour jump-start on their caffeine intake. We’ll finish our meal and move our conversation to the car to drive up the 78 towards Roscoe.

We’ll get on the 87 and get some coffee. Between Red Lodge and Roundup we’ll have seen rolling hills with turkey, cows, and deer; a lone tractor and miles later a windmill. We’ll have driven over stony curvaceous land with dead trees on the top leading to green and late fall foliage below before empty meadows that are tired from hooves but re-energized by the summer sun.

Some stores in Roundup have been closed for 20 years and others maybe only two. This is just one town of many like it along historically popular routes through parts of America. At one point, people were out here for railroads and resources. Now, travelers such as Dad and I can come and photograph and fantasize about what used to be and what stories and treasures are still held within the walls of decay.

Drive through Petroleum County and see more miles of straight road with both living and dead cows and pronghorn between the road and the fence that used to contain them than we do the one oil pump. The road begins to curve again as the hills return with some treetops just as high and a large pond with migrating birds taking advantage of the bathroom and breakfast amenities.

Dad reminds me that I’m not from California as I wasn’t born or raised in the state, but have spent six years in San Diego. This is a question that comes up when meeting fellow travelers and my answer has changed over the years. Sometimes I start with the country I was born in (Germany, 1986) or the state I was raised in (Texas, 91 – 04), or the state I met my spouse in (Virginia, 2005). I choose to start with where I live as an answer to small talk or to compare the distance traveled to be in the same place at the same time.

I used to tell people I was from Texas but my mother no longer lives there. When in the Middle East it’s ok to just be from America. I know how lucky I am for all the places I’ve been and don’t feel the need to brag about it, except on this website that’s all about me. I want to listen to others to gain insight and inspiration to help tell a story that began thousands of years before me and that someone else will carry on when I’m gone.

Stopped at Ezzie’s Wholesale in Malta and skipped the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum. The bank sign in Hinsdale shows 39°C. We’ll skip the six-mile Cut Across gravel road and continue on the 2 E through Glasgow before going north to St Marie where there are old forgotten houses with steel cabinets next to newly painted houses, same for the garages. I take the cabin air filter, with dead bugs in it, out of the car and feel the temperature drop.

We roll the windows down to let the a/c defrost and Dad reminds me that there’s no wiper fluid either, to help tame the mass slaughter of grasshoppers taking place on the windshield. I don’t remember being taught to have an abundant supply of Clorox wipes in your vehicle over other matters that should be on a safety checklist, but I also was never in an official driver safety course; which is why I still struggle to parallel park.

We see a couple coming out of a neighboring house with the same curiosity as us about the military housing for the old Air Force base in St Marie. We’ll explore a few more as we drive around before continuing on to rolling hills covered in beautiful yellow, green, brown, and white grasses. The sun is in the clouds, the pronghorn in the field, and the hawk on the fence post (the one we can’t capture on camera).

Found a barn at one-third capacity of barley next to a cute (from the outside) house that was falling apart inside. I’d have walked in but the doors are blocked with debris so I grab a long board and shove myself half in the window in an attempt to get a pan off the antique stove for Dad. I get the pan halfway across the stovetop when it rolls to the floor, where it shall probably remain for another 60 years.

We see deer by Ophiem on our way to the Canadian border near West Poplar, SK. We also passed sheep and one of them appeared to temporarily be a tapir on a vacation high north from home in South America. We get to the border and an agent drives up, on his way to work across the parking lot, to tell us not to go under the gate, eh. We let him know we wouldn’t be going that far and he said that was fine.

We get to Scobey around 8pm and the hotel clerk advises us to get dinner before bothering with check-in before we’re out of luck. I run into the pizza bar that doesn’t serve food on Thursdays past 3pm so we drive to the only other place in town that does – Scobey Golf Course & Club House. A lady at another table asked how we’re doing, surprised we’re way out here, and excited to suggest we visit Canada and the local Daniels County Museum, which looks like a well kept pioneer town.

Our drinks arrive via Erin, a 19-year-old headed to Missoula University, whose parents, Don and Laura Hagen, engage us in conversation. We listened to their history, married in 2001, and are impressed with the 4,000 acres they own to grow the wheat that makes spaghetti; at least before companies started using beans and veggies too. Stories of Europe leave us all wanting to go to Ireland and though we love the small town kindness it was time for us to get to one of the only hotels within 30 miles that doesn’t require a passport.

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Hiking In the Hills

We choose this Wednesday to sleep in till 6am, like a bunch of loafers, but what I don’t know yet is Dad’s definition of a hike and that we would need the energy for the day of exploration ahead. I’ll try texting Caleb while also looking up trails in the area, though Dad had already decided on one before we got here.

I’ll choose to eat the lobby buffet breakfast, out of wrappers, while sitting on the bed and letting Dad write. We’re out of the hotel at 830am and it will take us two hours before we’re signing into the West Fork Rock Creek Trailhead. That time is spent driving slow on 13 miles, part dirt road to avoid throwing dust, unlike the trucks passing us, and so we can see yellow-bellied marmots and take their pictures as they pose on the roadside.

We wonder who the “No grazing in wilderness” sign is for so Dad eats his granola before the hike as a precaution (as we were unaware this trail is shared with horses) and that there would be an abundance of raspberries to pick along the way. We’ll make up an anti-bear song, “we’re not as tasty as we look…” in place of the other repellents that Dad forgot… or did he? Another hiker lets us know that we’ll be safe because there’s too many humans out today for the bears. Then you ask yourself if salmon think the same way.

The first hiker we passed said we were about halfway to a waterfall, shares a photo with Dad, and then tells us to take the unnoticed trail to get the best views. I think his advice only helped to slow us down more as we looked for multiple ways to access the river; though even if we had gotten in we wouldn’t be able to show or explain the way it felt to be out in the wilderness together, the essence of this place, but that didn’t stop us from trying.

We pass the Kent family from Idaho, all 14 in total, with kids who have great trail etiquette – they’re not loud and moved to the side as they announced us to the rest of their group. We’ll stop to talk with Amelia and David, parents who dropped their daughter off at a nearby one-week rock climbing camp after driving over from Ohio. David lived in Buffalo for seven years after college and asks if Dad has family there because of his last name; he was born there.

Next group on the trail is four guys and a dog coming from Montana, California, and Texas; then three guys with a kid who camped for five days and are ready to go back; a guy with his three daughters who were out for two days; and finally two guys with a bear cub of a dog. The trail seems quite busy as so many return from other hikes that branch from this one or campsites that go further than we plan to.

I’m carrying my camera in one hand, we’re taking turns carrying Dad’s extra lens, and have two (should’ve been four) liters of water on my back with no snacks. We get to the seven-mile marker at 230pm and turn around. Going downhill increases our speed but doesn’t keep us from seeing three snakes within 30 minutes in the land of burned trees and tiny raspberries. Two guys will follow us out from a distance for the last mile which we are surprised to see the cars again so quickly.

Along the way, we saw willowherb epilobeum, Mormon fritillary butterfly, Arctic aster, elderberry, white everlasting flowers, giant red Indian paintbrush, penny bun mushroom, trumpet cup lichen, Clodius parnassian butterfly, Sierra garter snake, Western terrestrial garter snake, and Trentepohlia algae.

It took us three hours to hike the seven miles back. We’re a bit dehydrated and sunburned but find a liter of water in the cooler that we finish on the way to dinner; a second night at Piccola Cucina Ox Pasture. One of our waiters, as the staff seems to rotate so we can meet them all, went to ASU and shares the love Dad does for Andreoli’s Italian Grocer where the bread, pasta, cheese, and chocolates are made on-site.

The bread smells sweet and is the perfect mix of soft and crispy. Dinner is delicious, again, but tonight we’re saving room for dessert – tiramisu made table side and an espresso so we can make it back to the hotel. What a fantastic meal. A walk after dinner has us stumble upon a Shakespeare in the Parks show that’s over in minutes but seems to have attracted a crowd of 300 for the two hour event.

Caleb and I had a good day, interesting in their own ways. I’ll air my feet out as we finish our call before joining Dad in the room where he’s editing pictures. We lay down after 11pm, caffeine coursing through our veins, and I think about how all things take time as we search for our own waterfall or meadow. I’m glad to be in a good mental space where I can learn more from Dad and appreciate the knowledge he’s gaining from growing older. As soon as we acknowledge that we can’t sleep, we’re out.

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